January 2, 2006


"Casanova" stars Heath Ledger as the legendary lover. With all the downer serious movies out now, this low-brow but high-spirited costume farce set in Venice in 1753 is a welcome relief. Ledger, the star of "Bareback Mounting," plays Casanova in the withering, clench-jawed style of George Sanders, one of my all time favorites (best known today for "All About Eve," where Sanders portrayed the corrupt drama critic Addison DeWitt squiring the young Marilyn Monroe, whom he introduces as "a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art").

In the opening scene, the Inquisition accuses Casanova of sneaking into a convent and fornicating with a novice. "Well, I'd hardly call her a novice," Ledger mutters dryly in classic Sanders style. Ledger looks bored with and contemptuous of the proceedings, which was Sanders's trademark.

It says a lot about the conservatism of contemporary sexual mores that this 2005 version of "Casanova" devotes only the first five minutes to his amorous career and the rest of the movie to the indefatigable one discovering the joys of monogamy. (The movie is a soft R, closer to PG-13.)

Unfortunately, Sienna Miller is dull in an awful role as the anachronistic butt-kicking babe and proto-feminist nag for whom Casanova implausibly forswears all other women in the world. All the critics complain that there are no good roles for women these days, but nobody has the guts to blame the lack of sexy leading roles on feminism. Unless you have a major fetish for women-with-weapons (which a lot of nerds seem to have these days), it's hard even to notice actresses these days. (Check out how uninspiring the front-runners for the Best Actress nomination are here.)

The ending is borrowed from "Cat Ballou," but when you set anything in Venice, even when you've seen it all before, there's still plenty to look at.

The sweetest thing about "Casanova" is how it handles the "Ralph Bellamy role." Like Bill Pullman in the 1990s, Ralph Bellamy specialized in roles in romantic comedies as the unsexy fiancée who loses the leading lady to the leading man, most famously being humiliated in the incredibly funny but cruel "His Girl Friday," as he loses Rosalind Russell to Cary Grant.

In "Casanova," young Sienna Miller is betrothed to her late father's cousin's son, a rich merchant of Genoa. Her still sexy mother, played by aging bombshell Lena Olin, who is bored with being a widow, sympathizes with her daughter's reluctance to marry a man she has never met, but points out that that her own arranged marriage to her enormously fat father was rapturously happy.

Sienna's fiancé, the Lard King of Genoa, finally arrives on his barge, He is played by 45-year-old Oliver Platt at what looks like about 350 pounds, and it appears that this movie is going to treat him even worse than Cary Grant treated Ralph Bellamy.

But something funny happened in my showing. The audience took a real liking to the Lard King and started rooting for him. The most popular of the many plot twists came when this kindly middle-aged fat man and the leading lady's well-preserved mom fall for each other at first sight, freeing the disagreeable daughter to marry Casanova.

The plots of romantic comedies are inevitably formulaic, so I'd like it if screenwriters would make it standard practice to routinely add a subplot pairing off the thwarted Ralph Bellamy character with somebody more suitable than the leading lady. Ralph's never going to get Rosalind because he's not Cary. But then, who is? So, why should he be abused for not being Cary Grant? Help him find some happiness too.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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